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Fri 22 November 2019
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(n.) a non-committal, equivocating politician [19C slang]

There were local elections in England and Northern Ireland this week (though not, despite what Boris Johnson thinks, in London). And with the results now in, for the first time in a long time one clear message has been sent to Westminster: the overtly pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens have seen their popularity surge, while the Brexit-chasing Conservatives have lost more than 400 council seats, and UKIP’s share has fallen more than 70%.

With the government missing out, you might expect under any normal circumstances that the spoils of war would fall to their official opposition. But these are the 2010s, remember—so nothing in politics is normal any more.

Instead, Labour too have suffered bloodying defeats in their traditional heartlands that are difficult to ignore. Jeremy Corbyn’s unsteady stance of seemingly simultaneously opposing and appeasing a Tory-controlled Brexit process—and of dutifully supporting then essentially ignoring calls for a second referendum—has not paid off. This policy of “constructive ambiguity,” in the words of Labour MP Chris Bryant, has failed to wash with voters, while former Labour leadership contender Owen Smith tweeted early Friday morning that “Labour’s Brexit fudge was melting under the public’s gaze.”

“We lost votes in every direction last night,” he added. “Because voters don’t reward equivocation.”

With that in mind, this week’s Word of the Week is an unquestionably useful term from turn-of-the-last-century American slang: a straddlebug is a non-committal, equivocating politician—one who seemingly refuses or fails to commit to specific opinions or policies.

Long before that figurative sense emerged, however, a straddle-bug was quite literally that: a noticeably long-legged species of dung beetle, Canthon imitator, found the deserts of the southern and western United States. The bug’s curious anatomy soon led to its name being applied to all manner of equally long-legged people and equipment, from ungainly young girls to wooden tripod-like border markers that would ‘straddle’ the boundaries between different regions or plots of land.

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The political sense developed later in the 1800s, with the name eventually coming to be applied to any fudging, equivocating politician who vainly tries to “straddle” different political viewpoints or policies. One of the first public figures to be branded as such was the then presidential candidate William McKinley back in 1896, when he found himself the subject of a mocking poem entitled The Straddle-Bug published on the front page of the New York Sun: “If there is a question / As to just what I meant / I’ll answer that quite fully— / When I am President!”

Sadly the term fell out of political use in the mid-1900s, and has remained largely confined to the dustier corner of the dictionary ever since. Regardless of its obscurity, however, 2019 may well prove a useful time to pull it back into the spotlight.

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